America Deserves the Best Government Hollywood Can Offer

Candidates seem more about show than substance? Let's go all the way and embrace the greatest fictional leaders of all time.


I am in Los Angeles. It is the perfect place from which to have watched the GOP presidential debate, because we are very much still in the reality-show phase of this campaign. And though the Fox Business Network team did a perfectly acceptable job moderating this week’s debate, what would be more fitting for this particular group of candidates is a show hosted by Ryan Seacrest.

I am in Los Angeles. It is the perfect place from which to have watched the GOP presidential debate, because we are very much still in the reality-show phase of this campaign. And though the Fox Business Network team did a perfectly acceptable job moderating this week’s debate, what would be more fitting for this particular group of candidates is a show hosted by Ryan Seacrest.

It’s all make believe. Donald Trump is, of course, actually a reality show host and beauty pageant impressario. Ben Carson is a figment of his own imagination. Jeb Bush is a rerun. Ironically, Marco Rubio is playing at this game as self-consciously and earnestly as a contestant on Trump’s “The Apprentice.” As far as the other candidates go, for all their substance and the ethereal nature of their soon-to-be-forgotten candidacies, they might as well be computer generated phantoms dreamed up by the good folks at Pixar.

With that in mind, I wonder why we are doing this only halfway. As I sit here in Hollywoodland, it is clear that if you are going to treat the campaign like a television show, you can do better. Why have candidates who lack credibility or who seem to be playing at the campaign when you can have actual fictional characters played by professional actors? This would be far more interesting to watch and, paradoxically, considerably more credible.

To illustrate my point, I have gone into Foreign Policy’s secret film and video vaults buried here in California deep beneath the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the local institution created to honor the last fictional president to actually occupy the Oval Office. There, I have identified the actors and performances that most warrant consideration to actually occupy America’s highest offices, positions for which their imaginary status is no longer the (nearly) insurmountable barrier it once seemed to be.

While I have walked the miles of dusty stacks of old cans of silver nitrate prints of films in our unparalleled (and also, coincidentally, entirely fictional) collection, I acknowledge I may have missed a few worthy choices. Your alternative nominee submissions are welcomed. However, like everything else in this crazy political world, this process is arbitrary and controlled by a mysterious guy in Hollywood: me. So no matter how good your choices are, I’m sticking with these. Go write your own column. (I kid. Go write your suggestions in the comments section and everyone will see how much smarter you are than me.)

I will present my choices by job title. (Also: I have ruled out anyone who portrayed an actual living human being because that adds an element of verisimilitude to this that is clearly inconsistent with the current mood and aspirations of the American electorate.)

Members of Congress

Most portrayals of members of Congress since the dawn of film have been caricatures. Screenwriters and playwrights alike have often portrayed our elected representatives as venal, lazy, fat, out of touch, pompous, and corrupt. This is clearly unfair as very few of the current crew found on Capitol Hill are fat. Very fat.

But, that said, we are left to choose with few exceptions between guys who are nasty pieces of work at one level or another from Claude Rains as the ill-fated Sen. Joseph Harrison Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the Dick Cheney-esque Sen. Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss in The American President. (Many of these characters actually almost have the same name, ranging from Bob Rumson to Walter Pidgeon’s Bob Munson in Advise and Consent and Gary Oldman’s wonderfully weasel-like Sheldon Runyon in The Contender.) Sometimes you have characters with a certain gravitas like Arnold Vinick, the senator and GOP candidate for president played by Alan Alda in The West Wing or a hint of promise like Christian Slater’s Reginald Webster in The Contender.) In the end however, my vote goes for two indelible portrayals that showed the kind of character we ought to be hoping for from our legislators. The runner-up for the best performance by an actor as a member of Congress goes to Joan Allen for her absolutely wonderful performance as Sen. Laine Billings Hanson in the underappreciated and excellent, The Contender.

That said, there is in this category (unlike most of the others), one performance that is so iconic it’s probably done more than any other single factor to define what a Congressperson ought to be (at least before they are corrupted by the cynicism, money, and political games of D.C.). And that distinguishing performance was given by Jimmy Stewart as accidental Sen. Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

White House Chief of Staff

The chief of staff to the president has often been described as the second most powerful job in Washington. Sherman Adams, Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff was nicknamed “the Deputy President.” H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, was known as “prisoner number 93786” during his 18 months of incarceration at the Lompoc Federal Prison. (Actually, I don’t know what his number was. But in typical campaign form, I did not want my absence of facts to stop me from making my point.)

In television and film, portrayals of chiefs of staff have included some very dark figures, notably, one by a man who has actually played the part of Nixon beautifully, Frank Langella, as the conniving chief of staff Bob Alexander in Dave. (Jeff Perry as Cyrus Rutherford Beene plays another unpleasant functionary in the ridiculous but sometimes highly entertaining Scandal.) On the warm and avuncular side of the equation, there is one chief of staff that almost any of us would welcome as our right hand man, the great Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer in The West Wing.

However, Kevin Dunn as rumpled, sometimes depressed, and dependably wry Ben Cafferty takes us to the next level, offering realism and a running commentary on how ridiculous life is in the White House in Veep (already picked by me as the very best of all current shows on Washington). Dunn does not, however, take the prize. And that’s because there is one man who deserves an award on this list and I’m afraid he’s just not going to get the one he wants and that is Martin Sheen. While his Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing is one of the best presidents America has ever (not) had, his turn as chief of staff A. J. MacInerney offered the kind of wisdom and warmth that were just what his president, Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, in The American President needed…and that’s why he tops this list.

Cabinet Secretaries and Presidential Advisors

The movies and television are full of presidential advisors these days as they have been for years. Often, these are just bad people — as if somehow, the creative community felt that people in Washington were not devoting themselves to the nation’s business. Take for example evil defense secretaries like David Brice, played by Gene Hackman in No Way Out or Albert Nimziki played by James Rebhorn in Independence Day. These guys make you yearn for the days of comparative angels like Donald Rumsfeld. But periodically we do get cabinet secretaries and presidential advisors who somehow capture just what it is we expect or want in the occupants of exalted cabinet level positions. (After all, we have memories. We know the pantheon of greats that have come before in these jobs. Albert Fall. Anne Gorsuch Burford. James Watt.)

Imagine, if you will, our next administration peopled with a CIA director who brought the authority and deep wisdom of William Cabot as played by Morgan Freeman in The Sum of All Fears; a patrician treasury secretary with the comforting hauteur, sense of entitlement, and sprawling Eastern Shore estate of William Cleary, the creation of Christopher Walken in Wedding Crashers; or the manic commitment to justice, mayhem, and sex at moments of crisis of Tim Robbins’s Walter Larson, the secretary of state, in The Brink. That would be a cabinet. But presidents need advisors who often don’t hold cabinet rank, wisemen or wise women who offer the deepest insights, whether intentionally or otherwise. For that reason, the list of the best presidential advisors must necessarily be topped by one man who played perhaps the two most memorable (and most profoundly flawed) presidential advisors of all time: Peter Sellers — for both his work as, dim but somehow knowing, Chauncey Gardner in Being There and the immortal Dr. Strangelove in the movie of the same name.

Vice President of the United States

Real life Vice President John Nance Garner once offered the observation that the vice presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” It says something about America that the guardians of our delicate sensibilities saw fit to change this to a bucket of “warm spit” which is, frankly, at least as disgusting. But in either version, it tells you all need to know about the job of vice president. Occasionally, in films, you’ll get a portrayal of one that reminds you the job is an important one in the end, as was the case with Ben Kingsley’s soft-spoken Gary Nance in Dave. But, frankly, it would take a miracle to make this lousy job memorable. Fortunately, that’s precisely what we received from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer. While Meyer later becomes president, it is her first years coping with the irrelevance of her position and the insanity of Washington that has made Dreyfus’ creation perhaps the very best illustration of real life in Washington today. (Of course. As we have noted before, in D.C. today, the very best reality is the stuff we make up.)

President of the United States

We have certainly had more memorable screen presidents than we’ve had among their counterparts at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We have had the grave, like Henry Fonda in Fail Safe or Fredric March in Seven Days in May or Franchot Tone in Advise and Consent. We’ve had the ridiculously heroic, like action hero presidents James Marshall as played by Harrison Ford in Air Force One or fighter jock Thomas J. Whitmore played by Bill Pullman in Independence Day or Samuel L. Jackson’s William Alan Moore in Big Game, a 2014 movie I’m pretty sure you did not see. We have had accidental presidents who were vaguely comic (by which I mean, not really very funny at all intent notwithstanding) like Robin Williams’s Tom Dobbs in Man of the Year or Chris Rock’s Mays Gilliam in Head of State. We have had the deranged, like President James Dale as channeled by Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks and the sex-crazed as played by John Fitzgerald Kennedy…whoops, sorry, by Tony Goldwyn as Fitzgerald (see how they did that?). Thomas Grant III in Scandal or Gene Hackman in Absolute Power. We have had sniveling wimps like Esai Morales’s Julian Navarro in The Brink and credibly gullible empty suits like Jack Warden in Being There or another man who, like Warden, took the advice of one of the advisors played by Peter Sellers, President Merkin Muffley, who was played, of course, by Peter Sellers.

Naturally, Morgan Freeman has been president because well, of course, he has. Just once though, in the inaptly named Deep Impact which left barely a mark on our collective consciousness. In State of Affairs, which lost all credibility when it gave a top government job to Katherine Heigl, the president was actually played by someone who should be president, Alfre Woodard. (I’d vote for her.) But for every one with a resonant voice oozing sincerity, there is another who is just oozing. Front of mind in that role these days is smarmy yet sometimes strangely effective Frank Underwood played by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Spacey is just bad enough as the corn pone Macbeth (supported by the perfect Lady M in Robin Wright) that we might tolerate in him higher office because he’s the perfect combination of greater competence than we might expect from a real president and flaws that are just more interesting than the run-of-the-mill shortcomings we expect from our leaders (see Bush, George W., and Obama, Barack H.).

This leaves us with three portrayals of president that enter the home stretch as the ones we might best hope to see pretend-occupying the job that each of the GOP contenders seeks to play at occupying come January 2017. In third place, with a performance that is warm, principled, endearing, and therefore, just a little too good to be true in Washington, we have Michael Douglas in The American President, successfully helping Annette Bening’s Sydney Ellen Wade navigate her way around Dupont Circle while also standing up to the evil Bob Rumson. “My name is Andrew Shepherd…and I am the president!”

Next best is a performance that was cited in 2008 by none other than Barack Obama as his favorite fictional president: Jeff Bridges as President Jackson Evans in The Contender. Bridges brings a seriousness, believability, and the right mix of pragmatism and principle to the job. It’s understandable why Obama was drawn to him…and, in fact, one might even wish he had emulated Bridges more closely.

There can be only one occupant of the top job, however. And that requires someone who is both very good and very effective but who is also willing to set aside enough of the rules to actually succeed in Washington. And that person is America’s best fictional president, the ultimate political outsider made good: Dave Kovic. As the proprietor of a temp agency Dave Kovic (played brilliantly by Kevin Kline), is such a dead ringer for President William Harrison “Bill” Mitchell that he’s turned this remarkable likeness into a sideline performing as the president. So when the real fake president has a stroke, Dave replaces and then, as the plot unfolds, eventually exceeds him.

What is great about Dave is his down-to-earth practicality and heart. Facing fiscal problems, Dave brings in his best friend, an accountant, Charles Grodin, and they balance the national books and find enough money for an important social program in just the way you imagine it might happen in Washington, D.C., but never does – via common sense and a little arithmetic. Dave is a good man who does a good job. But, of course, in keeping with our goal that the portrayal actually has a whiff of D.C. reality, he is not too good. After all, he is committing a massive federal felony by impersonating the president. And then he takes up with the stricken president’s wife (played by Sigourney Weaver). So he’s good…but not so ideal that he is unbelievable. And that is just what we are looking for in a fictional president.

For a real one, it is clear, our standards are set much lower.

Photo-illustration by FP

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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